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W I S H I N G W ELL :

Voices from Foreign Domest ic Workers in Hong Kong and Be yond Hel pe r C h o i c e


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond Copyright Š 2016 by HelperChoice. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. Second Edition, December 2016 www.helperchoice.com www.facebook.com/helperchoice/


Foreword 4 Introduction 7 Part I: Portraits Superstar 10

Selfless 12

I Promised My Son a Toy 14 A Mother's Love 17 Patience Pays 19

Risk-taker 21

My Future Is My Dream 24 Sadness to Smiles 25

Proudly Domestic Helper 27 Part II: Whispers

Dreams (Never) Come True 30

Love Begets Love 31

Is It Worth It? 34 Sia in the Storm 36 No One Really Knows 41

Remembrance 39 Flight 44

The Game That Binds 49 Credits 52

Checherella 47


Foreword Laurence Fauchon

T

he first time I ever set foot in Hong Kong was in April 2007, on a Sunday. I was a student at the time. I took a doubledecker bus all the way from the airport to Causeway Bay, as I was instructed by a friend. We drove through Central, Admiralty and Wan Chai to finally reach Causeway Bay, where I saw hundreds of people sitting on crowded pavements. Coming straight from Europe, it seemed logical to think they were homeless. Later I learned they were among the tens of thousands of southeast Asian domestic helpers working in Hong Kong enjoying their only day of the week off. In November 2008, I ended up moving to Hong Kong with my husband. I became fascinated by these women and their joyful personalities. On Sundays, surrounded by the towering high-rises in dense and busy Hong Kong, they bring to bear their own brand of wholehearted warmth. Hong Kong is very noisy by nature – cars, buses and constant construction – and when you walk through the flyovers in Central, you realize that the domestic workers add their own chorus to the background sound. But the difference is that this sound does not come from machines. It is the most natural sound of women chatting amongst each other and with their families back home by phone, with a lot of laughter mixed in. Then I became pregnant in 2011 and looked for a domestic helper who could take care of my baby, so I could go back to work full-time. Just like many other families in Hong Kong, we needed two incomes to survive in this expensive city, and we were more than happy to be 4


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

able to hire a full-time live-in helper whom we could trust with our child, at a very affordable price. We hired a charming lady from the Philippines, who is still looking after our two daughters. After she started working for us, we quickly found out that she had to pay HK$9,000 to the employment agency who placed her with us. This sounded very unfair and more of a medieval practice than something befitting a developed and shining city like Hong Kong. Later I found out this was illegal. Agencies are only allowed to charge 10 percent of a helper’s first month of wages. The current minimum monthly wage for foreign helpers is HK$4,310. To tackle this problem, in 2012, I founded HelperChoice, an online platform that pairs domestic helpers with prospective employers for free. We started in Hong Kong, eventually expanding to Dubai, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Through HelperChoice, I came to know many of our users personally and listened to their stories. I learned that paying tremendously high and illegal placement fees is just the first challenge of working abroad. Then they must confront other obstacles: the emotional difficulty of being far from the people they cherish most, the guilt of having left their children to take care of others’ children, the sheer exhaustion of physical work that they may not have performed in the past, cultural differences with their employers, the lack of privacy in the intimacy of the household. In 2015, HelperChoice launched its first writing competition. We were surprised to receive 56 stories from all over the region – Hong Kong of course, but also Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore and Dubai – all well-written and very touching. Encouraged, we organized a second edition in 2016, this time backed by the news website Coconuts. We received even more submissions. We hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be for the domestic workers to put their stories to paper. Most of them reported that writing made them cry. We, at HelperChoice, cried as well as we read the stories coming in one by one. As a mother myself, I felt their pain.

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

We wanted to give a public voice to these women, and we started by publishing the three winning entries on Coconuts. But we still had all these beautiful poems, essays and stories left. Instead of letting them gather dust, we decided to publish a full book containing more entries, as well as photos of the authors. I believe that many people in Hong Kong and elsewhere are unaware of the actual situation of foreign domestic workers. I hope this book is read by as many people as possible so that the general public and specifically employers - whether they are locals or expatriates - can gain a deeper understanding of the emotional journey their helpers go through. I also hope this book will encourage employers to treat their domestic helpers better, because these ladies are not animals or slaves. They are loving people and faithful workers who deserve to be treated as such.

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Introduction Ju-chen Chen

I

am an anthropologist who studies the impact of migration on the experience of women. It was this academic interest that brought me to the foreign domestic worker (FDW) community in Hong Kong in 2011. In the past five years, I have had the privilege of hanging out with many Filipino workers and sharing their Sunday routines: birthday and farewell parties, assembling balikbayan care packages for their families, association meetings, as well as various festivals and pageants. I became gradually confident in understanding their womanly and motherly experience of working in Hong Kong. I developed tentative answers to questions like why university-educated women choose to work as domestic workers and how mothers bear the pain of leaving their children behind. These were conclusions drawn from sustained observation and interaction. But as valuable a tool as anthropology’s time-honored tradition of fieldwork is, it is no substitute for first-hand accounts and narrative. The pieces included in this edited volume offer the rare opportunity of hearing FDWs discussing their worlds and issues central to them in their own words and voices. We hear them describe in rich detail their physical and emotional journeys from their hometowns to Hong Kong. We empathize with their initial setbacks and rejoice in their personal and professional growth. We listen in as they grapple with difficult emotions of guilt and shame. And we get a snapshot of their lives of leisure, away from the solemn burden of hard labor and strained family ties.

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

Hong Kong is home to a sizable force of some 346,000 mostly female FDWs. It only makes sense that they have distinct backgrounds and lead different lives. Yet they are often seen as a uniformly poor and culturally inferior group separate from the local population. Hong Kong immigration policy and visa regulations also encourage the impression that FDWs are a docile and drab collective. They are expected to be exemplary, ethical workers without personal lives. Yet in this collection of poems, essays and fiction we find the opposite – a colorful cast of characters with individual dreams and aspirations. But for all the incredible diversity they encompass, these 18 pieces also confirmed one thing I learned from my fieldwork: that while we enjoy different income levels and social standing in Hong Kong, my informants and I actually share similar core concerns. We both wonder how to achieve a “better” life than what we have, how to provide the best for our children and how to juggle our roles of working professionals, wives and mothers. On the level of common humanity and womanhood, we are not that different after all. I organized the 18 entries into two sections. The authors of the former group appear to internalize family and social expectations and their pieces tend to take on a more upbeat and celebratory tone. They are often polished “portraits” of the model FDW. On the other hand, the pieces compiled in the second section lean toward the introspective and reflective. They showcase FDWs outside the workplace and tease out identities other than the worker, resembling a bustling chorus of “whispers.” The book title is taken from the final piece in the collection. Cecil Calsas compares Hong Kong to a wishing well, “where one throws a lucky coin and utters the dream of getting a good life.” “Not all wishes are granted, not all dreams materialize and not all who arrived in high spirits go home alive,” she writes. I can’t think of a more succinct and beautiful summary of the FDW experience.

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Part I: Portraits


Superstar Jing Jing

I

n the bustling city of Hong Kong, foreign domestic helpers are in demand, making up a huge workforce of roughly 346,000 and counting. We’re the ones taking care of the odd jobs, tidying and cleaning house, looking after kids, elderly or disabled people, shopping and cooking, tending to pets, as well as other miscellaneous domestic tasks. Working abroad comes with its own set of challenges, such as emotional hardship and culture shock. We need to be strong when facing each challenge in our everyday dealings with our employers and job responsibilities while at the same time thinking about the situations we have left back home. We have to have greater patience, discipline and self-control. We must also adjust to a new culture that’s far different from our motherland’s. Furthermore, we have to be selfless and great multi-taskers in order to complete our daily workloads. Selfless indeed, because we want to give our loved ones something better. We want to provide our families with enough healthy food that will nourish them and better homes with stronger foundations that can protect them from destructive storms or any calamities. We want to send our children or younger siblings to the best schools in our country with the hope that they will receive a better education. We also want to ensure that our loved ones have good quality clothing and mobile phones as a means of communication. The phones may not be the newest models, but they connect two hearts and ease the pain of being apart. A simple text message or even a 10


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

missed call can turn an otherwise gloomy day into a beautiful and promising one. These are just some of the basic needs that every human being deserves and doesn't want to miss out on. These are some of the reasons why we assume the responsibility of being a domestic helper in a foreign country. But wait! We take these jobs not because we don’t have a choice, but instead, we embrace them with reason and purpose. We are not just helpers. We are parents, teachers, accountants, nutritionists, chefs and nurses rolled into one. On the other hand, we are also mothers and grandmothers. We are still daughters, sisters, friends, even the heroines of our loved ones who in one way or another idolize us as superstars!

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Selfless Raquel Evangelista

T

he bond between my family and I was – and still is – so strong that it’s quite unimaginable that I would work somewhere far from them, but that has been my destiny. One night, while the family had dinner, as usual there was not enough food on the table. My mom was serving us, and I noticed that she didn’t serve herself. When I asked her the reason, she said, “I don’t have an appetite.” But I knew she wanted to give her share to us. The following nights I was sleepless. As the product of a broken family and a single parent myself, my options were limited. My mom had sacrificed her life for us. She carried everything on her shoulders. She even took care of me after I gave birth to my son. I prayed to God to show me the path and guide me through the steps. Soon I realized it was time for me to step up to help shoulder my mom’s burden and provide a better future for my son. Working abroad was the best way to help my family cover their expenses. W hen I set foot in the beautiful city of Hong Kong in October 2011, I was lost. I had such mixed emotions. I was anxious and afraid. 12


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

Eventually those feelings led me to break my contract and return home. Luckily I was able to find a second employer, and that was when my overseas journey truly began. I started to take care of three cute children: twin boys that were 7 and a 9-year-old princess. At the beginning, nothing was easy. There were struggles and downfalls. I missed my son and my family deeply. But looking after those three little kiddos was like caring for and loving my own son. Their hugs relieve me of my exhaustion. And daily phone calls to my family assure me they are OK and give me energy and motivation for the next day. Often, homesickness strikes. Focusing on work is a helpful diversion. As we all know, “Good things come to those who patiently wait.” We need to work hard and surely the result will be quite amazing. I’ve learned a lot by taking care of these lovely children. I’ve improved my Cantonese and knowledge of local culture. I’m more patient and better at controlling my emotions. I do not regret being far away from my family. I know I have made my employer’s three children happier. I have improved my own life and my family’s situation as well.

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I Promised My Son a Toy Eunice Sacliwan

I

'm a typical 26-year-old woman, mother of a 5-year-old boy. We once had the happiest moments together. My son is the most precious gift I've ever received from above. He has the most beautiful smile. I also adore his silent yet most encouraging looks. Sept. 1, 2014 was the end of the world for me and for my son. It was a terrible thing watching him scream as loudly as he could while I walked away from him. My feet were heavy. My heart was in excruciating pain. During the 7 1/2-hour bus ride to the airport, my tears never stopped. Sept 2, 2014. After a short briefing, I was sent to a designated employment agency branch for pickup by my soon-to-be boss. Upon arrival at my employer's house, I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes started to get ruddy. That very night, my employers briefed me on the major household chores. My mind was buzzing. I felt dizzy and none of their words sunk in. For dinner, they gave me a small bowl of mixed vegetables and a bowl of rice and sent me to eat in the kitchen. I felt like I was sick with a contagious disease. My current duties encompass all possible

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

household chores, including tutoring a 6-year-old boy attending primary school. He is the prime and constant reminder of my son. He resembles the latter in so many ways. When I cook for him, I think, “This should have been for my son.” When I give him a shower, I think, “I should be playing with my son in a basin full of water.” When I sleep with him, I think, “I should be hugging my son to sleep.” I’ve hired a maid to look after my son in the Philippines. I’ve entrusted him to the arms of a stranger. I don’t know if she knows how to take care of a kid, if she's trustworthy, if she can handle my son's tantrums or if she's even that affectionate. Once my son was ill. I talked to him via video chat. He said, “Mama kelan kaba uwi?” (“Mama, when are you coming home?”) I paused, gulped and fumbled for words. I said, “Malapit na anak, konting tiis nalang ha.” (“It'll be soon, son. Just a little more patience.”) He retorted, “Pero kelan? Lagi mo nalang sinasabi na malapit na pero dika naman talaga uuwi. Bakit si neyney hindi sya iniiwan ng mommy nya, bakit ikaw?” (“But when? You keep on saying soon but you're not really coming home. Neo's mommy doesn't even leave him. Why did you have to leave me?”). He’s bullied in school due to his size – he's the biggest in his class but the youngest in age. His aunt heard that one of his classmates peed on his shoes. Another day a female seatmate slapped his head with a pencil asking for some examination answers. And so many other stories. I wasn't there. All I can do is touch his face on the screen during video calls, utter the best words that might relieve him in little ways, and tell him how much I love him. I wake up as early as 5 in the morning and don’t get to rest until 11 p.m. I’m even asked to handle chores while I’m eating. When I’m sick, I still need to act normal and work, even though I feel terribly exhausted and want to lay down badly. You can't do anything but cry, just to ease the pain temporarily. Once I went to McDonald’s for lunch with my employer’s family. I went to look for vacant seats with the kid while his parents ordered. I was thinking they'd get me a solo meal but later on they asked me to take a chicken wing and some fries from their son’s meal. I

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

looked at them in awe but uttered nothing. I looked down at my feet and said I was stuffed. They enjoyed their meal and I walked away. Breakfasts are usually a piece of bread or plain noodles. Lunch could be the same. No snacks. I’m lucky if I eat rice once or twice a day. My situation here is the total reverse of how I live in the Philippines. Although we don't have much luxury, we are happy. But I’m also a mother who aspires for a better future for my son. I promised my son a toy. I promised him a pair of shoes. I promised him clothes. That's why I'm here. I have started, so I’ll carry on. No matter how much it hurts, no matter how many tears and how much sweat I shed, I will keep those promises.

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A Mother's Love Monina Pitogo

To become a mother Is the most remarkable moment. A precious moment has happened Because of the precious one that came! Bearing a child Is much more precious than silver n' gold. It brings light and sacrifices, Sacrifices that give tears of happiness! But the most difficult to bear Are the sacrifices that Bring tears of so much pain, That slash and break a mother’s heart. Taking care of other kids Instead of taking care of my precious one Is the most painful chapter of my life! I long some day I will be holding my dearest one!

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

But hugging other kids Gives us strength, Gives us hope To imagine the embrace Of our own little one. Their smiles Give me joy Because their smiles Might as well be the sweetest smiles From our own child. The word "sacrifices" Sickens us! But thinking of their future Becomes our vision! Sacrifices become A mother’s greatest mission! A big salute To all the mothers out there, Who never fail To give the best for their Precious ones!

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Patience Pays Natividad G. Urbi

P

overty is the main reason why mothers with young children decide to leave the country to work overseas. It is the dream of every parent to provide the best for their children, but to leave their families, let alone their young children, is the toughest and most painful decision a mother can make. I wanted to give my children a better life, so I undertook this journey even if I knew it meant a great deal of sacrifice. I first set foot in Singapore when I was 27. At the time my children were still young. My son was 7 and my daughter was 4. I left home with the hope that someday I would be able to send them to university and give them the highest education I could afford. Working overseas was truly hard. There was never a moment when I didn’t think about my children. I was not successful during my early years of employment. I quit and went home several times because I couldn’t overcome homesickness, which affected my concentration and the quality of my work. But thinking about my ambition to give my children the best education gave me the

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

drive and courage to return to Singapore. When I returned for good I worked even harder. I slept four hours a day and didn’t take a day off. I ate only when my employer and family were done and took only their leftovers. I got shouted at for the slightest mistake, but I just suffered and endured in silence. My mind was focused on my ambition and because of this I became even tougher. I promised myself I would never give up no matter what. Instead, I did my work the best I could and always gave proper respect to my employers regardless of how they treated me. Time flies so fast. With all these sacrifices I was able to emerge triumphantly. There is no greater feeling for a mother than seeing her children graduate. My son is now an electronics and communications engineer and my daughter is a registered nurse. It truly pays to be patient. I thank the Lord for all the guidance and strength He gives me every day.

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Risk-taker Sheila Mae Hernalin

I

have always longed to work overseas.

I am the eldest in the family, with two younger brothers. My mother was a housewife and my father an electrician. My mother was very dedicated to us but was afraid to take risks and accept changes. My father's company closed and he lost his job when I was in the second year of high school. He told me he could not afford to send me to college, even though I ended up graduating as salutatorian. My father's closest friend told him about a job opportunity in Saudi Arabia, but my mother never agreed to let him go abroad. My father stayed with us and I will say that we had one hell of a ride during that time. As a teenager, I always envied friends whose fathers were abroad because they could have everything they wanted. I always blamed my mother for not letting my father go. My mother eventually died of an internal disease. We didn’t have enough money to take her to the hospital. During this family crisis I told myself when I had my own family, I would make sure that I could provide for all my children’s needs and wants. After my mother died, I decided to leave my hometown Bago and pursue my studies elsewhere. I got a scholarship and lived with my aunt. I worked at her small restaurant in exchange for free food. There I met my husband Ryan three years later. I fell in love, forgot about my ambitions, stopped studying and left with the man I loved. God blessed us with three wonderful children. My sons Keso and Olin are now 8 and 6 and my baby girl Sofia is 2. But in the early 21


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

days, we struggled financially. There were times when we asked our neighbors and friends for rice and medicine. I sold my clothes so I could buy milk for my sons. We cooked sweet potatoes or bananas instead of rice to save money. Ryan is a motorcycle driver. He is indeed a hardworking father, but his income was not enough to support us, so I also found work at a call center. It was as hard as opening a raw nut using your hands. I couldn’t miss work when either my children or I myself were sick or when there was a typhoon. I had to work graveyard shifts and deal with rude and racist customers. It was not easy for me to work late into the night and take care of my children in the morning. I never got enough sleep, but seeing my children happy, eating and sleeping with them is the most satisfying feeling a mother can ever have. While our financial situation improved, it still wasn’t ideal. We lived in a Nipa stilted hut with my mother-in-law. It always broke my heart when my children asked for more toys and food and I had to say no. There were times when I only had enough money for my bus fare going home from work. Sometimes I would borrow money from my teammates at work. One day I reconnected with an old friend on Facebook. She was working in Hong Kong. I asked her how she was doing and she replied with pride. “I am very good, so happy and content as a mother since I can provide for my family,” she wrote. I felt so ashamed. I continuously followed her posts and admired how she looked, how she dressed and the things she sent to her children. Eventually I asked her to help me find work in Hong Kong. She happily agreed, but warned that I had to be physically and emotionally prepared. The process started. I took part in interviews and training sessions. My husband never hesitated even though we had to use his motorcycle as collateral to borrow money, because he knows I am a risk-taker and a dream-chaser. When I waited for my visa I cried almost every day secretly because of the mixed emotions that I felt. I was excited about the prospect of a better life for our family but also sad to leave my children home with their father, especially my baby girl. The first day I set foot in Hong Kong in January I was very 22


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

emotional. I cried and smiled because I was finally here in my dream place, even though I thought it was an impossible wish at age 31. My first day of work was like hell, full of sarcasm and discrimination. I almost called my employment agency and asked to go home. But my good friend Batsheba kept my head up, encouraged me to keep going and not to forget my motivations for working here. I had overcome so many challenges to get to Hong Kong and could handle more. My life is full of sweet and bitter moments, but what's important is I am learning to move forward. I want to end my story with three “ifs.� If God let me choose my partner again, I would still choose him (Ryan). If I could choose again, I would still choose who I am now. If I could undo everything, I would choose not to because I love the life I have now and will make it better.

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My Future Is My Dream Richelle G. Gallego

I never wished to be in this place. All I wanted is to please. But one day I didn't expect One person treat me incorrect. I will never surrender Because God is always there. Have faith and pray. True love will never betray. I may not be with you now Because I want to do my last bow. Just take care of yourself And I will love myself. My future is my dream To be with you someday. No matter how far the distance between us, Think always that I admire you deeply.

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Sadness to Smiles Joanna

I

n my early days of working in Hong Kong the word “helper” made me feel ashamed. Why? Let’s be realistic. For some, it’s the cheapest kind of job one can have. I was 23 when I first came here. No friends, no family. A foreign land. I remember I spent nights crying myself to sleep. I wished I could accelerate the days so I could finish my contract and return home. But when I thought about the main reason I was here, I

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

regained my energy. The more I thought, the more I realized the important role helpers play in society, even when it is unnoticeable or meaningless to some. Think about how they wake up earlier than everyone else, so that everything is ready when their employers and their family members wake up. Ma’am and sir can go to work smoothly. The kids can go to school. And when everybody leaves, they clean the entire apartment ceiling to floor, so the family comes home to a tidy environment. Helpers also take care of the elderly, tutor kids, walk pets and wash cars. They are the people that turn illness to health and sadness into smiles. I believe that all of us have dreams. I know none of us dream of being helpers for life. One day we will all go home, where our hearts belong. But for now I feel blessed and thankful that as a domestic helper I can provide well for my family. I can support my parents and send my younger brother and sisters to school and even college. And I live my life without depending on others. I rebuilt and restocked my house in the Philippines when a typhoon destroyed it two years ago. I don't know when I'm going stop working here. But as long as Hong Kong keeps helping me fulfill my goals, I will keep on being a responsible and hardworking helper worthy of trust, even a dreamer!

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Proudly Domestic Helper Olivia Jemino

Domestic helper is my occupation. It’s a lowly job or profession; Mostly it’s for ungraduated persons. But I endure the hardship not just for family but also for nation. I am an OFW (overseas Filipino worker). My country calls me a living hero. It's nice to hear that word But behind that I suffer the pain of a piercing sword. I am a domestic helper, At the same time a single mother. I choose to work here Instead of taking care of my own son and daughter Cuz my priority is their better future. It’s not easy being far away. Homesickness is my enemy. It's hard to be apart from my loved ones But having God is my endurance. It's not my plan being a domestic helper 27


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

But God brought me here to know him deeper. And the best thing happened. God saved me from doing wrong again and again. When I fall He is there to catch Cuz God loves me and you so much! I am proud being a domestic helper Cuz I am not just a helper, But also chef, tutor, even a substitute mother. I am proudly a domestic helper now Cuz I proved to myself that I can do more and better somehow!

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Part II: Whispers


Dreams (Never) Come True Riz Peher To be a professor is what I dreamed to be, An engineer is what my dad saw in me. Unfortunately, both will remain a fantasy Because we were poor and it frustrates me deeply! Unable to sustain my university expenses, I decided to work as a DH (domestic helper) and put my dreams to rest. My priority was to provide the best for my family Because as a breadwinner, it was my ultimate duty. Homesickness on a daily basis I’ve got to fight. I pray for strength and guidance for the next morning light. In a foreign land, it is really hard to cope, As I work hard for every dream and every hope. Now all my siblings have graduated, My sacrifices have been greatly rewarded. The certificates and medals they have received Are the same things I, for myself, never achieved. 30


Love Begets Love Cleirmarie

M

y mind was racing, my heart was in my throat and my tears just kept on falling.

It was 4 in the morning the day of my departure and everyone was still asleep. I had to run and catch the first bus to Manila because I had to pick up documents from my placement agency before boarding a flight to Hong Kong. I hugged my two sleeping daughters goodbye and was out the door before I changed my mind. I never stopped crying during the eight-hour bus trip. What kept me going was the thought that I was doing the right thing for my family. My meager income was not enough for education alone, let alone basic commodities. And so, the journey began. My husband caught up with me in Manila, just in time to see me off at the airport. We sat in silence holding hands. He didn’t want me to work in Hong Kong. At last, they announced it was time to board. We hugged each other tightly for one last time and without a backward glance, I left him there. I never dared to look back, fearing that I might change my mind if I saw the forlorn look on my beloved's face. It was the longest two-hour journey of my life. When we reached Hong Kong, I couldn’t believe what I had done. I felt so alone. I had to find a companion who knew how to go through all the procedures at the airport. I realized we were many. I met five more ladies who were also new in Hong Kong. We waited for hours in the airport lobby for our pickup. It was my first time abroad, but there was no 31


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

excitement, only worries. After spending the night in a cramped room with 20 or so other women, I was led to a waiting area to be picked up by my new employer. It was another six-hour wait. I was drained. When we arrived at my employer's home, it was almost dinner time. I was introduced to at least seven members of the family, even though in my contract there were supposed to be three family members only. They were so hostile – no smiles, no handshakes. Immediately, I went to work. I helped prepare dinner and had to wash the dishes afterwards. I went to bed at 11 that night. It was tough working for them. Even if I followed their instructions to the dot, they always found fault in my work. But I still persisted, thinking that if others can, why can't I? My first month was hard because my paycheck went to the placement agency. Work was easy. I was used to hard work and in the Philippines, multi-tasking is the norm. We are mostly hardworking people. It was the treatment that made it hard to cope. I got a fair share of being shouted at and the worst thing was I didn’t eat enough. I was given HK$20 each week for food. I was lucky when there were leftovers but most of the time, I had to rely on eggs, bread and noodles. And things just got worse. I just couldn't stand my employer shouting at me at the top of her voice whenever things were not done according to her taste. So I asked her to release me, which she did. I found another employer after that. I cannot believe I am nearly finishing my second contract with them. They have been so kind. For as long as they need me, I will be happy to work for them. My ward was nine months old when I started working. He will soon turn 4. I am happy to say I have enjoyed looking after him and watching him grow up to be a smart and lovable little boy. He loves me and I love him more. Now, my family is happy because they can have whatever they need. They were even invited by my employers to visit Hong Kong. That was one of the happiest days of my life, seeing them so happy. My husband even comes once in a while when I can’t go home for vacation. I go home twice a year for free when my employers are gone for vacation. 32


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

I am happy and my family is happy for me. They say that I have changed, but for the better. Before, they felt sad because they thought I couldn’t be happy pursuing work that didn’t fit my level of education. But I made them proud because I showed them that whatever profession you get into, be the best. If you are a doctor, be the best doctor. If you are a teacher, be the best teacher. In my case, I am a helper, and I am trying to be a good helper, if not the best helper. When I go home to the Philippines, I still do the laundry, clean the house and cook some recipes I learned in Hong Kong. We also go on family picnics once in a while, although my children understand that spending hard-earned money is only limited to more important things. They also want me to go home for good when we are ready. I thank God for making things right for me and my family and I will never stop thanking Him for giving me the best employers. In closing, I might say, love begets love.

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Is It Worth It? Maricris C. Tumbaga

M

ost of us OFWs decided to work abroad for one common reason: to support our families and to secure a better and brighter future for them. With big hope and faith, we set off to make our dreams a reality. Time flies so fast. We missed those special occasions in our kids' lives. How many birthday, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations have we missed? We weren’t around when they were sick or sad, those times when they needed us. All we can do is cry and pray earnestly. And the worst thing is we have to hide our tears, especially in this city where they seem be a jinx. It is torture that we have to pretend to be happy and energetic while taking care of our wards. Most of us have spent more than half of our lives working abroad. But the million-dollar question is this: is it worth it? For some people it is. They built their houses, sent their kids to university and started their own businesses. But on the other hand many of us failed to 34


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

achieve our dreams. Our families are broken. Our children became pregnant or addicted to drugs. Some OFWs suffer maltreatment from their employers. I once talked to a Filipina who had worked in Hong Kong for more than 25 years. She said she is getting tired but can’t go home yet because she isn’t ready financially. The future is indeed uncertain, but we must remind ourselves of our initial motivation. We are here for our families. We may be overwhelmed at times, but we must not forget that. With modern technology we can stay in constant communication with our family members. That is necessary. We can’t succeed if our families aren’t understanding and supportive. To our families: we really want to make it up to you, but you guys have to do your part too. Let us all set our minds to our goal of fulfilling our dreams. Hand in hand, I know we can do it!

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Sia in the Storm Arumy Cerpen

I

shed all my belongings to come to Hong Kong – my beloved home village, family and relatives, and especially my one and only sweetheart, the little angel we named Sia. As a mother, this was the hardest part, letting mountains, oceans and borders separate us. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was just letting myself flow in the strong stream of my life. That’s what happened after my husband ran from his responsibility. I cursed as I left Sia during the golden years of her childhood. I used to take her wherever I went, holding her tight in every step I took. Nevertheless, I had to go alone now. This was for the sake of her future, too. Staying home in poor economic conditions wouldn’t bring a better life for Sia. Wasn’t it a mother’s responsibility to do anything for the good of her daughter? And I was a mother. No matter how hard it was, this was the path I had to take to complete my motherhood. I didn’t even dare to say goodbye to my 3-yearold toddler in person because I knew she wouldn’t let go. So I left in the middle of the night when she was asleep. I was sure she would scream in the morning knowing that I was not at her side. I 36


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

trusted my mother would take care of her. Hong Kong was my destination, to become nothing but a housemaid. Yet to be an international housemaid you had to go through many difficult processes. My first stop was a vocational training center, where they taught us Cantonese. I was always thinking of Sia. I nearly gave up and went home but the thought of Sia’s future made me stay. My husband, with whom I was in love, chose to leave us for another woman without even taking a peek at his daughter. He left us with a significant amount of debt. Sia was caught in the middle of a family thunderstorm, the victim of my inability to keep her father by her side. “Are you ready to go?” a staff member at the employment agency asked me when I was about to pick up my visa. I had mixed feelings when I answered the question. Thoughts of Sia were dancing in my head. I spent three months in the training center without asking my mother to bring Sia. I was afraid Sia’s tears would leave me broken and change my mind. I asked her to forgive me a thousand times. I hoped one day she would understand. JJJ “Auntie, can you help me tie up my hair?” the 6-year-old girl asked. It was Linda Leung, my employer’s daughter. Her request startled me. I had been in this concrete jungle for only a month. When I did not talk to other people I always felt that I was talking to Sia, or sometimes to my mom. Life was unfair. I wanted so much to raise my own child, but instead I took care of someone else’s child. But wasn’t I taking care of Linda so I could secure Sia’s future? Sia’s future would be saved by my salary. I tied up Linda’s hair with complicated feelings. I wished it was Sia’s hair I had to tie up every day! The guilt I felt toward Sia meant it took longer to get close to Linda. The first month went by so slowly. I even thought about ending my contract. But soon other thoughts would come, like how would I pay for Sia’s education, and that Linda was a sweet girl and her parents were so kind. 37


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

Finally, after six months, I summoned the courage to call my mother and ask to talk to Sia. But, I never thought that she would refuse to talk to me. She was 3 1/2 and I had planned to put her in a kindergarten, so she could play with other children and not feel lonely at home. Her refusal to talk showed me that even a small kid could feel the pain of being left unnoticed. I ended up spending two years with Linda. The sweet girl made me fall in love with her, of course without losing my love and guilt toward Sia. The day before I left Linda said, “Send my regards to Sia.” I did tell her lots of stories about Sia. I kissed Linda, saying I could not promise to come back. Though Linda and her parents were so kind, I thought Sia needed me more. JJJ Leaving the arrival gate, I quickly scanned those who came to pick me up. All my beloved family members were there, but my eyes were searching for Sia, who was now 6. There she was! I rushed to her. “Sia! Mom misses you so much!” I shouted. I wanted so much to hug her. She ran away. “Sia, it’s your mother, sweetie!” I said. My heart was broken to pieces. Sia was just a kid, I knew that, but I still felt devastated. Tears blurred my vision as I watched my mother chase Sia. When I could finally hug Sia, I wasn’t sure whether I was dreaming or not.

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Remembrance Jacqueline P. Formento

Do you remember these hands That used to push your cradle While the whistling wind on a stormy night Created the background To a vast ominous darkness?

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

Do you remember the smell Of home-cooked meal clung to my skin, The tangy smoke of firewood That often left my eyes crying? Do you remember the soft lullabies When we watched the fireflies outside our window, While the stars danced merrily To the gentle wind from the ocean? But I know you will not remember The last time I held you in my arms, When I kissed your eyes while you were sleeping. I know that you did not even notice how I stealthily left our house In the cloak of dawn. I did not look back, but the tears kept falling. The emotions almost choked me To unconsciousness. That was a long time ago. Now I’m coming back, I fear your wrath. I fear the accusations in your eyes, The silent metallic anger when I left you. Unleash it my child. I’m home.

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No One Really Knows Monina Maria

T

wo months back in Hong Kong after vacation and I feel more homesick than ever before. The short but happy moments spent with family and friends back home linger in my thoughts and make me want to catch a plane and go back to the Philippines again. But due to so many reasons, I can’t. This raises the question in my mind, “Why am I here?” To say I am here because I want to give my family a better future, especially my kids, is already a cliché. What else? I'm here so I can build a house, send my kids to college, perhaps own a business, and be able to give my kids what they want and not only what they need. There’s no shortage of reasons for an OFW like me, if asked why we are enduring the hardship of working away from our families in exchange for the few dollars we earn. But do these reasons help us feel any better? Do they give us the consolation we need whenever we think of our families back home? Do they compensate for the sadness we feel whenever we 41


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

miss them? Do they ease the self-pity we feel when we are alone and sick, and there's no one to take care of us but ourselves? Of course not. The truth is they're just mere thoughts to convince ourselves that leaving our families behind is an invaluable sacrifice we have made, to justify our decision to leave them. I guess no one really knows what's going on in the heads and the hearts of OFWs. It is sometimes sad to know that many people back home think that being abroad is like living in a bed of roses. Sorry to disappoint you folks, but that's a very big misconception and I am a living testimony to that. My life was at a crossroads when I decided to pursue my dream of going abroad to work. I chose this path. I left my family, my husband, my kids and my friends. I left with the hope of making life better for us. I left with the determination to make a change, to stay away from a curse that seems to have befallen me and my siblings after both our parents passed. I left because it was what I thought was the right thing to do at that time. And now, seven years after I embarked on this journey, I sit and ponder about how life has been for me. I could say I have lived a normal life. But it is also heartbreaking to know that I have not achieved the things I hoped to achieve. I have not fulfilled the promises I made to myself. I wasn't able to make a difference. And to top it all, I did not make life better for the family I left. I'm not saying that my experience is the same as everybody else's. Many were lucky to find the greener pastures that they sought. Good for them. But many others didn't have the same fate, and that includes me. I ask myself why. Was it my fault that I was not able to make the changes I wanted? Is it that I wasn't looking when Lady Luck smiled? Or was I still sleeping when the Lord showered the world with blessings?

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

But I'm not saying that it was all bad. I have gained from this experience too, which I can sum up here. I've proven that life's not really fair but I have God to be thankful for. With His guidance and His help, I've learned how to deal with the adversities life has to offer, and always emerge the victor. I feel bad that I am here taking care of someone else’s child, but not able to do the same for my own offspring. But when I realize this is a sacrifice I need to make to give them a brighter future, I am somewhat appeased. I may also feel overwhelmed sometimes, especially when problems and hardship pour in and inundate me neck-deep. But just thinking of my wonderful kids who are waiting for me to come home gives me a happy disposition and with that positive tone, I forget my problems and just live the day as it is. I have learned that the best weapon OFWs have is their unwavering faith in the Lord, along with the courage and determination to face and fight all of life's atrocities. We can never be wrong if we let the hands of the Lord guide us to the right path, whenever we encounter the fork in the road. As I always say, and this has served as my motto in life, "Live life as it is. Work, eat, sleep and be merry, for tomorrow is always another day." To be able to greet each new day alive and kicking is reason enough to be thankful. I may be treading a dark path right now, but I know that I will reach the end and finally see the light, in God's time.

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F light Frecel Paringit

A

s I gathered my thoughts on pen and paper today my mind brought me to the day I decided to apply for work abroad. There was a sober smile on my face. I can still remember packing up my things without delay because for me “abroad� was a better place. I was a secondary school teacher in the Philippines for nearly 10 years. It was a stable and decent job. I loved my job so much but still decided to quit because I felt unhappy and guilty. Why? Because

44


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

I was a teacher with a broken family. It broke my heart teaching those innocent minds while I led a less-than-exemplary life. I felt a brokenness deep within me. Most of all, I was lost. I am a single mom. Even if teaching was a stable job, my salary was not enough for our needs. My eldest son was about to attend university at the time. My self-confidence as a teacher was also dwindling. I was depressed and hopeless. But I’d rather choose to be a single mother than to be with an irresponsible husband. Life would be in vain and miserable if I spent my entire life with a gambling husband. I was a mother but never a wife. Never in my marriage did I feel loved by my ex-husband. It’s a hard and sad truth. Somehow I decided to marry the wrong man. There was never a day we didn’t argue and fight. I cried bitter tears because he usually spent all our money on gambling and drinking with friends. I could do nothing but cry silently. I can’t ever recall sharing my deepest thoughts and dreams for our children because he didn’t care. With every passing day I became numb. Until one day I decided to let go, not because I didn’t value our relationship but because I valued our children’s future while I couldn’t find any trace of concern in my ex-husband’s mind. I managed to live a life with my children, so to speak. I chose to smile with them alone. Every night as I watched my children sleep I tried to revitalize myself with the kind of strength that only children can give. Being a single mom is no joke. I learned to become a father as well as a mother. I had to explain to my children why their parents decided to go their separate ways. But it seemed harder to survive each day juggling my family life and my role as a school teacher — a supposed model and inspiration, someone to look up to. How could I be a good teacher with the kind of life I had? Every day I walked into my classroom with guilt. I wore a smile to mask my tearful heart. Waking up early and going to school was the hardest thing. My students were throwing me all sorts of questions about life when I had many questions too. So I left my children with their grandparents and flew abroad 45


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

without hesitation. Yet life abroad was even harder. My first three months were the worst days of my life. Homesickness was killing me inside. Life in Hong Kong wasn’t what I expected it to be. I was a walking corpse. Again, I was lost. Being so lost made me so spiritually thirsty. That empty space within me wanted to be filled. I needed to understand my life, my journey, my soul and my calling. So I turned to God. It has been two years now. When you read this I might be on a flight back home. But I will go home with confidence. I feel renewed. I have been healed by His love. I am a strong wall. Whatever storms life brings I will never collapse, only be shaken, because I found God and He picked up my broken pieces.

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Checherella Cecil C. Calsas

Saturday night almost gone, She piles the plates back when they're done. Floor is gleaming, ironed clothes hung. Status update: “Tomorrow will be fun.” Turns on tap, then starts singing, Washes away six days of pain. Her legs are sore, her back aching. They’re nursed in the warm shower rain. She crawls to bed hugging the linen, Teary eyes glued to a picture frame. Next morning polished nails are glimmering, Pouting lips carefully outlined. Long black hair dangles a ponytail, Skimpy tube on top a miniskirt. She grabs a fancy Gucci bag, Pointy stilettos crackle out loud. Victoria’s Secret perfume she sprays, Sways her hips out the metal gate. Breathing the air of Sunday freedom, She scans the sea of foreign faces. Amid shiny sunglasses, shoulder pats and kisses, An inviting dance floor gladly sits. 47


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

She lets loose, she rules the world. With loud laughter the party booms. Pair of strong arms wrap her waist, To the dark corner they embrace. She fools a guy with no disgrace, Tells him she's Ana, Ruth or Carla. None of the names she's known, Only a sweet loving che che (tse tse) back home. Clock pointing to half past eight, Heart beats fast, can't be late. She washes the paint of masquerade. Sunday night's over, another week awaits. Editor’s note: “Tse tse” means “big sister” in Cantonese, an affectionate term Hong Kong employers frequently use to refer to their helpers to others, especially their children.

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T he Game T hat Binds Cecil C. Calsas

W

aking up on a Sunday morning brings an ecstatic feeling. After six days of hard work, the seventh day becomes therapy of enormous proportions. Worries and tiredness magically wear off and the spirit of looking forward to meeting friends and relatives drives everybody hyper. Plazas become instant convention centers before gleeful Pinays and Indos head off to destinations. Ordinary domestic faces are beautifully transformed into trendy and sophisticated looks. They're not the same busy tse tses towing trolleys full of a week's supplies, pushing wheelchairs or walking dogs, but individuals entitled to a day of short-lived freedom. A group of baseball enthusiasts converges at a ballpark in Lam Tin for their weekly fitness and batting practice. Blue jerseys, white pants and baseball caps become their fashion statements, accessorized by backpacks and baseball bats slung on their shoulders, a bulging wheeled bag full of gear, baseballs and a change of clothes. High heels are out and studded shoes make them walk confidently in the field. The rhythmic sound of the balls struck inside the batting cage becomes music to their ears. While at queue for their turns to bat, they discuss how the week went and how much money one has to send to the Philippines on payday. They know each other's families, kids, hobbies and employers are baptized with aliases for gossip purposes. They watch each other’s backs and one person’s pain becomes a team's sorrow. They’ve established a strong camaraderie – banters and insults are not taken seriously but treated as a trademark of a tough Slugger. A member's absence is easily noticed because of the closely knit bond formed by sharing food under the shade of a 49


Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

tree. The Philippine Sluggers women's baseball team debuted in league play organized by the Hong Kong Baseball Association in 2009. Equipped with a wooden bat and tennis balls, the Sluggers started practicing at Blue Pool Park in Happy Valley before being recognized as an affiliate club. Uniforms and equipment were procured from generous friends and sponsors who believe in the team's capability to compete with wealthy Chinese locals. From there flourished diverse tales and sacrifices, stories told in between innings, stories that bind a team that became a family away from home. What one's diploma says does not guarantee better working conditions. At work, every Slugger is equally addressed as gong yan, bun mui, tse tse or auntie. Their fate depends on how their host families treat them and the lifestyle they lead outside the dwellings where precision and perfection are demanded. The Philippine Sluggers have somehow adopted a healthy lifestyle in a simple yet enjoyable environment. Some of them used to hang out in bars, discos and karaoke bars or gambled at bus terminals, footbridges and cramped boarding houses. They balked at the image of domestic helpers occupying sidewalks, taking selfies or joining beauty pageants, so they formulated a sporty solution to overcome stress at work. Most of the players are professionals who took jobs not worthy of their four-year bachelor degrees in the hope of providing a decent income for their families. Some seek greener pastures abroad while others go home to take care of their children or aging parents. Some stay to save for retirement and will go home someday with a colorful experience and a unique story to share, that once there was a team that played to represent the Filipino community in a game of equal opportunity, a game of no discrimination and a game that builds a lasting friendship among players. Hong Kong may be a land of fortune and opportunity, but for foreign domestic helpers it is a mere wishing well where one throws a lucky coin and utters the dream of getting a good life. Not all wishes are granted, not all dreams materialize and not all who arrived in high spirits go home alive. As of this writing, the Philippine Sluggers are waiting to play

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond

their last and final game of the 2015-2016 season on May 8 at Lion Rock baseball pitch in Kowloon. They settled as first runner-up the previous season after losing to the Chinese team Macaroon. It did not stop the Pinays’ quest to strive harder to dominate the B bracket in the recent tournament. Their aching hands are waiting to get hold of the glimmering trophy, the same hands that make toilet bowls immaculately white, that cradle babies not of their blood, that push the wheelchairs of former tycoons; the same hands that make their masters’ lives better and symbolize the struggling economy of their home country. As their 9 p.m. curfew fast approaches, the smiles slowly fade and laughter dissipates as the Sluggers drag their heavy bags and feet. Goodbyes echo at the MTR station as they disperse into different directions praying that tomorrow is better than yesterday. Editor’s notes: “Gong yan” means helper in Cantonese. “Bun mui” is a derogatory term that translates as “Filipino girl.” The Philippine Sluggers ended up clinching the B bracket title in Hong Kong Baseball Association women’s league play, finishing ahead of 11 other teams.

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Credits HelperChoice CEO Laurence Fauchon Editors Ju-chen Chen, Min Lee Photos Laurence Fauchon, Abdela Igmirien Layout and design Rachel Ao Ieong, Julia Cheung

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Wishing Well: Voices from Foreign Domestic Workers in Hong Kong and Beyond  

This book is a compilation of essays, poems and fiction written by foreign domestic workers for the second edition of the "Be a Journalist"...

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